Friday, January 25, 2008

Lost In Found & Piana At Lush

I've been listening to a lot of classical. Saturday, the NHK orchestra was performing one of my recent favorite pieces, Sibelius's 2nd Symphony, so I went to Shibuya to listen to that, then afterward headed over the Lush to check out something more in line with this journal, an event featuring pop bands Lost in Found, Piana, the Guitar Plus Me and Conchill. It was a music-filled day, and one that made me think about the contrast between classical and pop.

A classical concert is overloaded with rituals and rules: welcoming the conductor onto the stage with applause, waiting until all the symphony movements are over before clapping, etc. The musicians of a good orchestra are incredible, and a strict rule of silence is enforced so everyone can listen fully to their work, as well as the blend of sounds the conductor creates with his baton. Except...our being human beings, there's never complete silence. There are the coughers, the fidgeters, the whisperers. They get glared at and shushed for these relatively minor violations.

After a while this totalitarian rule of silence begins to affect your own mind, so you begin to look at disapproval with the noise-makers too. That may be why, somewhere around the 2nd or 3rd movement of the symphony, I began to notice that the middle-aged lady next to me was rubbing the sleeve of her sweater. Rub, rub, rub. It was some sort of fabric that squeaked a bit when rubbed. Rub, rub, rub. Rub, rub, rub. Rub, rub, rub. She wouldn't stop. It was a tiny sound, but I heard it, and in that place where no sound was allowed except the orchestra's, it got on my nerves. But...what could I do? Tell some random lady to stop rubbing her arm? I put up with it, in silence.

At a rock concert it's inconceivable that I'd care about some person next to me rubbing a sweater. There's little likelihood I'd even hear it in the first place. But, strangely, even in the amplified racket of a rock gig, some rules of silence exist. Blabbering away during a favorite band's show might earn you evil eyes from the fans. And anyone who's been to even a few gigs knows they have their share of silly rituals, maybe even more than even classical concerts, from pumping the arms to head-banging to mosh pits, and on and on. (Is it something about music's way of turning on primitive impulses that gives rise to all these rituals?)


Gigs that Lost In Found are involved in are good because they never have too much of the stupid rock show rituals you see elsewhere. Their events are just places to hang out and listen to music, and to chat with a friend over a beer. Nothing more than that. And that's the sort of scene I like. Of course, we wouldn't all be there if LIF didn't create lovely indie pop on-stage, having a blast the whole time, cracking up over both jokes they share with the audience and private humor they keep to themselves.


Piana, as you can see in my previous post, released one of my 10 favorite albums last year, so it was with excitement that I went to the Lush show to see her for the first time. She stood on the left half of the stage, accompanied by a single pianist on the right. Piana's performance was understated—she didn't move much, and the emphasis was on having you listen to the voice and the way it interacted with the piano. But Piana has such an ethereal, soothing, soaring style of singing that listening to it was enough to captivate me. She also has a wonderful way of creating musical space out of pauses in her singing.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

10 Favorite Japanese CDs Of 2007

2007 was a good year.

#10. Texas Pandaa

Maybe it's not the best idea to call this album one of my favorite of 2007 considering it came out at the end of the year and I've only given it a couple of listens. Still, Texas Pandaa is a fabulous band, and Days, with its mellow, slow-flowing, riverine shoegazer tunes and its lovely two-female vocals, seems destined to spend many hours in my CD player this year.

#9. Various Artists
Good Girls Don't! Neo

Do compilation albums belong on best-of lists? They aren't the product of individual artistic visions, so I don't think they could ever be as important as a great album by a single band or musician. Still, I love the way compilations introduce me to new artists, and few Japanese indies labels create better ones than K.O.G.A. Records. Neo is the latest in a series of K.O.G.A.'s Good Girls Don't girl rock compilations, and contains gems by bands I'd never heard of before, including Napolitans, totos, the Monmons, Pajii Imps and Stinky Rat (what a name for a group of young Japanese lasses!), as well as nice new songs by two of my favorite units: Teeny Frahoop and Hazel Nuts Chocolate.

#8. Piana
Eternal Castle

A whispery-voiced girl and her keyboard create gorgeous, laid-back songs that seem designed to be consumed in those warm, comforting moments between being awake and falling asleep.

#7. Lantern Parade
Zessan Zessenchu

Can Lantern Parade really be said to be hip-hop? I wrote a post using this one-guy unit as a springboard to air some of my views about Japanese hip-hop, but now I wonder whether that's his intended genre in the first place. In any case, this album is NEW—vivid, even violent lyrics, a deadpan delivery, dark, non-funky mixes—I'm not a hip-hop expert, but I've never heard anything like it in Japan or elsewhere.

#6. Coltemonikha
Coltemonikha 2

I prefer this album produced by musical workaholic Yasutaka Nakata over the three (!) albums released in 2007 by his main unit, Capsule. Though a big fan of Capsule, I liked them most when they were at a mid-point in their transition from a lounge pop unit to a club electronica act—album-wise, L.D.K. Lounge Designers Killer is my favorite, a work that deliciously mixes the lounge feel with electronics sounds. Capsule's latest album, FLASH BACK shoots too far into the electronica/house/club/disco realm for my tastes. And their other album is a remix collection. But...check back with me in a year—I might have been converted by then by FLASH BACK.

Compared with recent Capsule, Coltemonikha is much more straightforward, catchy electronic pop. You can't get songs like “sleeping girl” and “Namaiki” out of your head. The nasal-voiced female vocalist projects a sonic aura of being someone who is neck-deep in a stylish, fashionable world, somewhere around Shibuya or Harajuku. In fact, I checked her blog, and she's a model.

#5. Luminous Orange
Sakura Swirl's review of this album said that the title track takes some getting used to because of its eccentric sound, whereas the rest of the album is vintage, rocking Luminous Orange. Strange...I had the exact opposite reaction: the song “Sakura Swirl” totally put me under its spell, while the rest of the album was good but not that different from songs in earlier albums like Drop You Vivid Colours (though, having said that, Luminous Orange is still, no question, a great shoegazer-influenced band, as listening to tunes in the album like “Silver Kiss” and “Half A Boy” will make abundantly clear). Wow, but “Sakura Swirl”'s a whirring, echoing, beeping communication from a distant, musically-advanced planet of a song. You need to listen to it.

#4. The Kitchen Gorilla

#3. Mix Market
Shiawase No Elephant

The Kitchen Gorilla and Mix Market are both female vocalist-led groups, and the music they play is plain, vanilla, rock. If you want cutting-edge or revolutionary, don't listen to them. This is music as hamburger rather than haute cuisine—but the most delicious, lovingly-made, well-crafted one. Don't you sometimes yearn for the simple stuff?

To a large extent, though, I like these two because of their singers. Kayo of Kitchen Gorilla has a lovely high voice that undulates snake-like with emotion. Mix Market's Yutty sings like the archetype of a playful J-girl rock heroine, sweet and filled with feeling.

Both albums have one or two knockout singles that I've listened to I don't know many times. Kitchen Gorilla's KO single is “Milk”; Mix Market's are the title track, “Shiawase No Elephant” ('shiawase', meaning happiness, is pronounced something like 'she ah wah seh'—'An Elephant of Happiness') and also 'Frank'.

#2. Yuyake Lamp
Yuyake Ballad

My old favorite band Orange Plankton was reborn in 2006 as the trio Yuyake Lamp, and inherited many of its virtues. The appealing, hard-to-forget piano pop melodies. The great lyrics, which are pure poetry, about everything from friendship and love to the Dawn of Life on Planet Earth. The beautiful, intuitive singing style of vocalist Yunn, that soft voice that radiate inside you. All of that is on display in Yuyake Ballad.

This album also has two great songs that stand out. One is “Natsu No Toorimichi [A Summer Path]”, a ballad of just voice and piano, and one of the most beautiful, emotionally direct songs I've heard in 2007. The song is about a memory of loss in summer, which has led some to think it may be a song about the recollections of a war widow (because the Pacific War ended in August).

The other is “Nami Wo Nuu Kaze Yo, Te Yo [The Wind & Hand That Shapes The Waves]”. Yuyake Lamp's Yunn sometimes creates songs that appear to be extraterrestrial in their inspiration. They stick out because they are so unlike any other songs you've heard before, and strangely gorgeous. The songs seem to be guided by nothing other than emotion. In recent years there's been about one song per album like this—“Hissorito” in Orange Plankton's Mizu No Niwa, “Mebuki” in the same band's Wakusei Note, and now this. To me, the feeling of “Nami Wo...” is like that when you wake up from a nap at dusk on some tropical island like Okinawa or Bali. Does that make any sense? Probably not... In any case, it's a master-work, and worth a listen (you can listen to a snippet of it on Yuyake Lamp's MySpace page—it's currently the second song from the top).

#1. 4 Bonjour's Parties
pigments drift down to the brook

I already knew by October that this debut album by this chamber orchestra-like pop group would likely be my #1 favorite work of the year, and I wasn't wrong. My assessment of the album hasn't changed since I wrote about it in this post in October, so please take a look there if you are interested in my take on it. This, in any case, was the first paragraph: “My favorite J-music album so far this year is 4 Bonjour's Parties' debut effort, pigments drift down to the brook, a work that's so different from anything I've heard before that it made me want to go and listen to the group's favorite musicians and influences, to get a sense of their origins. I listened to Yo La Tengo, Broken Social Scene, Architecture in Helsinki, Belle & Sebastian and others that they list as favorites, but that didn't help me much in figuring them out, and there were only trace signs of influence. 4 Bonjour's Parties are original.”

I'm looking forward to their next album, and new songs.


ADDITION TO PREVIOUS LIST: If I knew a few years ago what I know now, I would have included in my 2005 favorites list Macdonald Duck Eclair's The Genesis Songbook, which I've written about here, and Capsule's L.D.K. Lounge Designers Killer, in my opinion the duo's best work so far (and I wrote about one great song on the album here.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Finnish Love Asakusa Jinta

I'm putting together my top 10 favorite Japanese albums list for 2007, which should be done in the next few days.

In the meantime...

I found this wonderful comment to a YouTube video of Asakusa Jinta live at SXSW 2007:

Asakusa Jinta is full of energy and they gave joy to Finnish people yesterday in Helsinki. They are creative, creasy [crazy?], talented, fun, colourful. Just fantastic.
I have 54 years, but I felt myself 40 years younger.
I love Asakusa Jinta.

A Japanese rock band making a 54-year-old Finnish person feel like a teenager...Isn't music so beautiful sometimes, filling you up with possibilities?